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Georgina Miranda | 07.01.2019

A former slopestyle and slalom competitor, Anita Naidu has helped thousands of people of all ability levels accomplish their mountain bike goals. Over the past decade she has coached all over western North America and, most recently, Europe. Internationally recognized as a humanitarian and engineer, Anita has emerged as one of the bike industry's most in-demand coaches. A frequent keynote speaker, human rights documentarian, and all-mountain matador, she has represented various global sponsors as an athlete and spearheaded numerous social advocacy projects.

At Outdoor Project, we've made it part of our mission to celebrate and amplify the voices of women in the outdoors with impactful and driven voices like Anita Naidu. In our third year of Women in the Wild, we are proud to share our platform again with courageous and inspiring female figures who are making a difference in the outdoor industry and the world at-large. It’s been an honor to be a guest editor this year for Women in the Wild, and I am grateful and inspired by all of the remarkable women that I got to connect with and interview. They are shaping a new narrative daily, and they show us anything is possible with tenacity, creativity, and purpose.

 

The only way to adventure is by being alive to the struggles of others and to the struggles of future generations.

—Anita Naidu

 

In this interview, we talk to Anita Naidu about her advocacy, her mountain biking, and how the outdoors are uniquely positioned to inspire positive change. This interview has been edited for clarity.

 


Photo courtesy of Anita Naidu.

Georgina Miranda: Give us the skinny on Anita Naidu. You have managed to combine being an athlete with social impact and also have an impressive engineering background. Take us through your journey.

Anita Naidu: We live in a world that sometimes seems as though it’s trying to break idealists and optimists. One that assigns value and intelligence to cynicism. But that’s a false notion, and my journey resides on disproving such cynicism.

Having lived many different and contrasting lives in 30-something years, forging all of it into changing the world seems natural. Growing up between cultures and continents provided an unorthodox narrative, a lived juxtaposition that is less likely in this super digital age and that I’m increasingly grateful for. Accepting my story led to recognizing I was ready to take on bigger things. I didn’t set out to be the first Indian female pro mountain biker or an award-winning humanitarian. My teenage self would have never believed I’d be named one of the World’s Most Adventurous Women. I simply wanted to challenge inherent injustice and took every single path my young mind saw to do so. The ethical urge to serve justice and reshape the world ultimately came from my own lived experiences.

Feeling the injustice of others as my own serves as the ignition point for all other pursuits: international humanitarian projects, finding tech solutions to global problems, astronaut ambitions, or charging up and down mountains and teaching others to do the same. I want to inspire communities and people to demand bigger and better things of society, whether that be advising large corporations on how to behave responsibly, giving a voice to those who have been denied one, or coaching outdoor recreationalists to channel their passion into advocacy.

All of the different instances: humanitarianism, engineering, mountain sports... they may appear distinct, but they radiate from the same nucleus. They bring me closer not just to my own humanity, but to the humanity of others.

GM: Were you always drawn to outdoor sports? How did that initial passion begin?

AN: I’m always drawn to anything that challenges the social fabric, and I’m convinced that humans have a higher purpose than fulfilling a status quo. The spark for mountain sports was a collage between freedom, rebellion, and an intrinsic understanding of inequality. In those early years everything had to come from the inside as there was no prescribed ritual, no role models, no waiting around for some brave soul to pave this. Inherently, I knew I had to go first and do so in a way that was genuinely myself. A life of meaning has struggle, and I accepted this as my own. Despite having multiple cultures to challenge, I was determined not to resign it to a Sisyphean task. Eastern culture’s discouragement of bold females gave me the footholds of defiance. Western culture’s low expectation of small brown girls provided the handholds. Together they served as the ideal launch pad for audacity and disobedience in a pre-internet ‘80s kid. You can’t tell people they are wrong, you just have to show them! Sometimes one has to smash the ceiling so hard the walls shatter.

GM: Where do you draw your inspiration/motivation from? Has that changed over your career?

AN: Fundamental to my inspiration is the belief that my place and the place of others is worth fighting for. There are certain truths, whether we acknowledge them or not, and I’m motivated by bringing these truths to light. Bringing moral questions to people’s attention and having lots of fun while doing it is a huge motivator. At the core, it’s understanding that the battles of human dignity and justice along with profound social change take profound work. Belonging to multiple camps and having diversity of experiences shapes a more complete and complex view of societal consciousness. The best part is that it’s a steady stream of inspiration and motivation, because there are infinite problems to solve!

When I started out, I was the single story that people encountered. There is enormous pressure to not fail my race and gender. That’s changed with adulthood, and I don’t have that chip on my shoulder anymore. It was armor worn as a young person, but with maturity of thought I have learned that pioneering individuals don’t need to change, it’s the culture and the leadership of that culture that needs switching up.

GM: What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome related to your outdoor pursuits or your career? What helped you overcome those challenges?

AN: Aside from having to map out my own directions, being underestimated was the most overt challenge. The world held a very narrow expectation of a petite brown girl, particularly one with a compassionate and empathetic nature. Although it’s obviously opaque to some people (and many electoral voters!), it turns out that under the velvet skin of the most humane is often an iron will, immense strength, and a keen sense of justice.

I came of age before diversity and inclusion were in HR manuals. In all my years of skiing, climbing, biking, etc., not a single person ever asked me what it was like to be the only brown person in these environments until about a year ago. This is significant because I’ve been in mountain sports for three decades and never had the luxury of being oblivious. Not once did someone ever mention, “Hey, what is it like being that far outside your element and culture?” or “What barriers did you face?” No one was even curious. I was expected to leave my identity at home and just act like I was white. This is really hard to do when even your goggles smell like curry all the time!

It taught me an important lesson: Real courage is standing up for your beliefs when they are unwelcome. I tried to bring it up over the years, and it would get dismissed as “not a big deal,” or “people don’t even see race,” or that I was making an issue out of nothing. No one was willing to acknowledge that there were certain distinct barriers for me. Without acknowledging their existence they are that much harder to fight. I rather understand how environmentalists who warned of climate change back in the ‘70s must now feel.

Encounters with people who acted entitled was something that happened at high frequency. Their experience never showed them anything else, unlike myself. Dealing with situations where the players were playing to win rather than playing for long-term morale or beliefs was tough. Their seeming obsession with competition and the discontentment at the success of others served as a powerful reminder that it’s best to focus on how you want the world to be in 50 years and where you are headed, not what anyone else is doing.

There is joy in struggling and tremendous purpose in fighting for a cause. Sometimes doing the right thing inflicts pain on others, and we mustn’t take that lightly. However, I’ve accepted that it is part of the complexity of being human and in being emotionally adept to re-think myself whenever necessary.

To overcome any challenges, it helps to have people in your life you can be unabashedly yourself with. Having a close inner circle that love you enough to point out when you are going down the wrong path, and stick with you even when you do, is unparalleled. I attribute much of my good decision making to this.

GM: What initiatives/projects/goals are you focused on? 

AN: I’ve become increasingly active in offering diversity and inclusion training and strategies for outdoor brands. Companies are finally realizing its importance and watching the outcome of brands I’ve provided training for gives me immense hope for the future. I’d love to hear from any companies that are keen on developing their DEI lens at [email protected].

My focus on the engineering/humanitarian side is on how technology is addressing modern-day slavery. This is after working on technology for displaced people and refugees last year.

The Bike Fest Series has really taken off—it’s a series of low-cost, subsidized, high-performance bike skills camps for every skill level along with social impact training and moderated discussion forums designed to help people use their skills and talents to match the world’s deepest needs. We travel to communities all over Canada. MEC Outdoor Nation has just stepped in as a supporter, which means even more locations in the future! This year is really exciting as we will be showing the multiple-award-winning film A Woman Captured https://www.sundance.org/projects/a-woman-captured, a mesmerizing piece that follows the plight of a European woman enslaved during the past decade, at our Grand Edition Bike Fest in Cumberland, Vancouver Island, in conjunction with Cra Girls.

The Festival takes place this July over the course of 4 days, and there will be skills clinics, social impact sessions, roundtable discussion groups on a wide variety of current issues, as well as food, a live band, and dancing. It’s Canada’s biggest women’s mountain bike festival, and this year the numbers showing up for the advocacy discussions rival those for bike skills!

I’ll also be bringing the clinics to India and Africa—the first stop will be Iten, Kenya, with Kenyan Riders. Outside of that I’ll be traveling to give keynote speeches and doing some cool mountain bike film projects. If you are a community organizer interested in bringing bike fest to your town or hosting a keynote, get in touch.

GM: What do you see as the most important issue or set of issues affecting women in the outdoor/adventure space? Where do you see yourself having the biggest impact on these issues? How does adventure impact women’s lives?

AN: In the face of a burning planet and eroded social trust, women in outdoor spaces need to come to the table and bring their politics there. The issues of women in the outdoor arena are similar to anywhere else. We can’t rely on the current gatekeepers to change things, whether that’s environment, feminism, economic opportunity, etc. Ultimately, if we want women to live in a world of second chances, to not be held to impossible standards, to have a say over their reproductive rights, if we don’t want to be governed by anything less than that, then WE MUST be leaders in politics, policy, and public life on every possible level and in every possible way. It’s not enough to just live life a certain way and hope others follow, we have to fervently take concrete actions.

My role is to bridge the gapping reality between rhetoric, public assumption, and what is lived first hand. We are now living in the age of envy, and we have a hyper-individualistic society on our hands, both of which are debilitating interpersonal bonds. My function is to help strengthen those bonds and advocate a shared moral culture and a society where everyone is important.

Adventure—in its truest form and not via consumption of an experience—breeds resilience and helps us avoid folding ourselves into a pre-marked package. True adventure helps you differentiate between that which is real and that which isn’t. It’s the reckoning between who you are and who you want to be. The unpredictability in adventure sharpens a woman’s instincts, teaching her to rely on the strength of her judgment. No textbook can provide such a lesson. Yet trusting her instincts remains fundamentally the most important skill, particularly in a rapidly changing and complex world.

GM: What can the greater outdoor community and companies like OP do to better amplify and celebrate the voices of ALL women in our community?

AN: The outdoor community has the potential to be a leader in diversity and inclusion. One of the best things the industry can do is not play in the margins and get right to the core of the issue. Rather than commodifying diversity and social advocacy, we should focus on concrete steps that yield positive change.

A close look at who is leading almost always results in concluding more diversity is required. To realize that vision, the outdoor industry would benefit greatly from mandatory diversity training, mentorship programs, and developing strategies for inclusion.

A key step is creating conversations with the public and internally that give full significance to the issues women and marginalized people face. Be direct; don’t lace issues like racism and sexism with candy due to discomfort. We don’t have all the answers yet, and we need more debates and conversations to produce them. Offer those challenging dialogues now, so that in 50 years they are no longer necessary.

GM: How do you keep your pursuits going? How did you get it all to a point where this is a feasible lifestyle for you? How do you support your adventures/passions? Has this changed over time?

AN: An evolving social character is necessary to keep doing impactful work. To keep things going, I often have to look critically at my reach and my grasp and then work to fill in the middle.

When you are driven by convictions and an ethical vision, it’s easier to juggle the moving pieces. While some parts of my life are very distinct and at times a mind trip (conflict zones to coaching bike jump clinics to corporate boardrooms all within days), combining humanitarian work with outdoor pursuits is truly a labor of love.

Being an engineer, diversity consultant, humanitarian, athlete, coach, aspiring astronaut, and frequent keynote speaker has all been a very rich journey. Since we are focused on the outdoors in this interview, I’ll speak to that aspect of life. My favorite part of the mountain-biking-meets-social-impact clinics (Bike Fest Series) remains being part of other people’s triumphs. Equipping people to negotiate their internal train of thought, overcome their fears, and conquer their discomfort brings me unparalleled joy.

Conceiving innovative methods of coaching that include strategic psychological, emotional, and physical techniques have provided me with wonderful success helping bikers achieve their goals. It’s such an honor to be one of the most in-demand coaches and to be recognized as a top instructor in biking. I’m constantly forced to up my game and break down complex ideas with clarity to riders of every level from all around the world. It’s a pursuit that allows me to combine technique with empathy, discipline with kindness, and listening with demystifying. And top that off with mentoring and showing the same people how they can address some of today’s biggest social issues—it feels like a calling much more than a balancing act.

Being a diversity and inclusion consultant for some of the biggest brands in the outdoors is also something I approach with so much zeal and gusto that it doesn’t feel like a job. There are few things I am more passionate about than tackling tough problems, alleviating the suffering of others, and pushing toward a more fair and just world. By combining seemingly orthogonal skills and talents, we can create inexhaustible avenues for making change and paving a career.

GM: What’s been the most useful advice given to you along your journey? What advice do you wish you were given when you were younger?

AN: Any success calls for showing greater kindness, generosity, and justice. Only those lost in the dark treat it as an occasion for arrogance or greed.

Wish I had known when I was younger: Time isn’t your most valuable resource, energy is.

GM: Do you have any other tips/advice/encouragement for women looking to embark on a similar career or path or wanting to make a difference in the world?

AN: Be the reason that people believe that altruistic, intelligent, and empathetic leaders exist. Generate meaning not hype. Meaning comes from making a difference in something that is central to your identity. That which makes you quiver with indignation is a language you speak fluently.

To make a difference in this world, you will need to get people to stand for the same things you do, whether it’s in field hockey or a U.N. summit. So you will need to know why and what you are fighting. Coherence gives clarity to your fight.

Human dynamics are uncannily similar across disciplines from academia to mountain sports, to the humanitarian field, to the Ivy League, to policy makers. Egos and hubris versus those who work for ideas and who stand for a thing. Talkers versus listeners. The reasons behind why you do what you do will determine your personal contentment, so make sure they are the right ones.

Quite importantly, don’t get lured in the trappings of social media. Social media doesn’t allow for a nuanced and complex view of people, which is fundamental to making any real social change. It also prevents you from becoming an exceptional listener by falsely postulating that self-promotion. Technology disrupts so rapidly that by the time you understand its impacts, the effects are already embedded.

Pivotal to making a difference is developing a strong moral compass and an equally strong identity. One that doesn’t depend on provisional membership in a group or having followers. Allow your actions rather than a Twitter handle to define you. Real “social influencers” and leaders evolve organically, not via posting pictures, but through hard work, cooperation, and vision regardless of the spotlight. Their gravitas is in their ability to listen, observe, and mobilize.

GM: At Outdoor Project, we put a strong emphasis on the phrase “adventure like you give a damn,” which refers to putting effort into responsible recreation. This can come through volunteering with a local conservation group that stewards an area you care about or helping to get an underserved community into the outdoors; educating others on Leave No Trace practices; packing out some extra trash; or even doing things at home that help protect the environment and nature, like reducing use of plastics. How do you “adventure like you give a damn” in your own way?

AN: The ONLY way to adventure is by BEING ALIVE TO THE STRUGGLES OF OTHERS AND TO THE STRUGGLES OF FUTURE GENERATIONS. Indifference wouldn’t qualify as an adventure for me. With all of today’s pressing issues: ecological collapse, large scale conflict, rampant inequality, food and water security, widespread corruption—there is never a good enough reason to adventure without addressing these challenges. Adventuring like you give a damn means taking responsibility and accountability in the face of tough problems. If you care deeply about the world, that permeates into everything you do. Give lots of damns about lots of issues, adventure or not.

GM: What’s been your favorite outdoor adventure to date and why? What’s on your adventure bucket list and/or coming up for you?

AN: My favorite outdoor adventures have been whenever I’ve come face-to-face with the realities of the world and my own significance/insignificance. So it wouldn’t be organizing a world-class mountain bike festival, a climbing trip to Europe, navigating the back roads of Swaziland, surfing in India, or a big hike out to epic powder lines. I’ve done all those things and they are fun, but conventional achievements don’t compare to the raw grips of true individuality, which comes from understanding how you can impact this world. Any outdoor adventure that brings on internal dialogue qualifies as a favorite, and there are plenty more to come.

GM: What is the message you would like to share with the world, the outdoor community, and other women in general?

AN: The power to rise is out of reach for many, so those who can rise must rise to advocate. Your actions have powerful consequences beyond your own life. In order to build a fairer society, we will need to make genuine ethical behaviors without an underlying agenda the norm. Now more than ever, it’s important to reject superficiality in favor of building social trust.

Change-making is not limited to solving a humanitarian crisis, coming up with the cure for an epidemic, or building the next best technology. It is any action that brings us community, hope, and possibility for a better tomorrow. Because we don’t accidentally end up on the right side of history.

Want to hear more from Anita Naidu? Find her on Instagram at @abrownpanther​​​​ and on her official website. She has been covered by Storyhive​​​​​, Men’s Journal, REI Co-op Journal, Pink Bike, and Adventure Journal. For all of our interviews and articles, head on over to Women in the Wild 2019.

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Women in the Wild 2019

Women in the Wild is a movement that recognizes the amazing women who enrich the outdoor community with their passions, inspirations, and accomplishments. Outdoor Project is proud to grow this campaign in 2019 with the help of guest editor and 2018 #womaninthewild Georgina Miranda, adventurer, entrepreneur, mountaineer, and founder and CEO of She Ventures. We're proud to open our platform once again for the incredible stories and photography of women throughout our community. From in-depth interviews with outdoor advocates, influencers, and athletes to female-focused content from the community, Women in the Wild 2019 aims to amplify the voice of women in celebration of female fortitude, strength, and camaraderie in the outdoors.

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